How Culture Works

November 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some sociology profs give an assignment that requires students to go out and prank someone. It’s called a “breaching experiment,” but basically, it’s pranking, and as I said in the two previous posts (here and here), it doesn’t offer a lot of insight into the process of norm breaking and social control.

In the real world, culture and social control are much subtler and more powerful. Look at the experience of journalist Alif Batuman. Her parents are Turkish, but she grew up mostly in the U.S. She goes back to Turkey, and true to her Western ways, she does not wear a head scarf. That’s OK, sort of. Turkey is not Iran. There are no religious police enforcing some law about head scarves. But . . .

Because I spoke Turkish imperfectly, smiled a lot, and often travelled alone, I got a lot of lectures from men, particularly taxi-drivers. Some were secularists; others, those with the most religious paraphernalia in their cars, didn't try to make conversation. That still left many outgoing, casually Muslim drivers who took the time to explain to me how great the head scarf was — how it was “actually a beautiful thing.” For a woman to cover her head, they said, was in fact a feminist gesture, because it made clear she was demanding respect. There weren't the same misunderstandings as with a woman whose head was uncovered.
    I usually didn’t reply. . . But once, when a driver pressed me particularly jovially for an opinion, I said something like “I think all women should be respected. It shouldn’t depend on their hair.”
    The driver replied that I was absolutely right, that of course women should be respected, and that the head scarf was the best way for women to remind men of this necessity for respect. Men, after all, were worse than women: they could sometimes forget themselves, and then unfortunate things could happen, “even”—he said in a hushed voice, adding that he didn’t like to mention such things in front of me—“even rape.”


The driver probably does not see himself as an agent of social control, a head-scarf cop. He’s just offering – along with his view of what the scarf means – a bit of advice. She is breaking a cultural norm, and he is advising her about the ways of the local culture.

Batuman continued to go without the headscarf, mostly because of her feelings about the Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, and his religious anti-feminism. “Patriarchy — I could never forgive Erdoğan for saying those things about women. And, because he said them in the name of Islam, I couldn’t forgive Islam, either.”

Later, Batuman goes to an archeological site in Urfa. Again she encounters those little questions and comments that let her know she is breaking the norms.

I seemed to be the only unaccompanied woman at my hotel. When I told the clerk I was staying for six days, he almost had a heart attack. “Six days?” he repeated. “All by yourself?” . . . All the time I was in Urfa, whenever I saw any member of the hotel staff in the halls or the lobby, I always received the same greeting: “Oh, you’re still here?”


She is a walking insult to the local culture. It’s not a huge insult, but it’s more than a “micro-aggression.” Her intent is not to insult; she just wants to be herself. The local people for their part are tolerant – or at least not repressive. But they are also not helpful, warm, and accommodating to this stranger. (Sort of like Parisians back in the 20th century.) In the gender-segregated restaurant, the waiter watches the TV and seems to ignore her. When she smiles and waves to the women at another table, they do not wave back.

But culture is not just a matter of negative sanctions. A smile too is a form of social control, positive and pleasant. It tells us we’re doing the right thing. And because it is pleasant, it nudges us to want to continue doing right things. 

One day, when I had been visiting Abraham’s cave, I forgot to take the scarf off. Walking back through the park, I almost immediately felt that something was different. I passed two beautiful young women in scarves, walking arm-in-arm and laughing about something. When I looked at them, they looked right back into my face and met my eyes, still smiling, as if we were all in the presence of a great joke. I realized that no young women had met my eyes or smiled at me in Urfa till then. As I walked on, I felt a rising sense of freedom, as if for the first time I could look wherever I wanted and not risk receiving a hostile glance. So I kept the scarf on. And then I went back into the city.

This isn’t a scientific study; I didn’t try it multiple times, or measure anything. All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me “sister.” It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned — it was a wonderful gift.

This is how culture works. And we are all its agents, gently steering people into doing things the right way.

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The quoted passages are from Batuman’s article “Cover Story” in The New Yorker, Feb. 8 and 15, 2016.

Once More Unto the Breach

November 19, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about those “breaching” experiments some instructors assign their students. Here’s an example:

For this assignment, you will hypothesize the existence of a rule or expectation . . . and then break it in the presence of at least one naïve subject. You may do your breaching in cooperation with classmates.

Possible topics of the breaching exercise include clothing, grooming, conversational topics/styles, shopping behavior, and romantic behavior. The breaching activity must be something you do not regularly do. Possible naïve subject(s) include parents, siblings, roommates, boy/girlfriend, and strangers.

Describe the reaction of the naïve subject(s) to your breaching exercise and any interaction you had with them.

My point was that they’d chosen the wrong “naïve subject.” Forget about how other people react.  Students would learn a lot more about norms if they thought about their own reactions as deliberate norm-breakers. Lesson #1 in that post was that the norms are very powerful. When we think about it in the abstract, breaking a norm doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But in the specific situation, it becomes something much larger. But why?

Lesson #2: When we think about breaking a norm, our anticipatory anxiety is highly exaggerated and not rational. When you ask people why they can’t, just can’t, break the norm, they imagine consequences far out of proportion to what might happen. When Stanley Milgram (see the previous post) told his students to go into the NYC subway and ask people for their seats, one student said, “You want to get us killed?”  When I’ve asked students about doing the breaching experiment, they imagine offended strangers raining mayhem upon them. But even as they say it, they know that it’s preposterous. Which leads to . . . 

Lesson #3: We follow the norms not out of some rational cost-benefit calculation. We follow them because we have internalized them. Society is not just “out there”; it’s “in here” as well.

Lesson #4: Because reactions are so mild (a puzzled look, a question), with each incident, breaking the norm becomes easier. Norm-breakers therefore can eventually arrive at a rational, cost-benefit perspective. The student whose breaching consisted of offering to pay less than the price of an item might find that in some stores, you can actually bargain down the price. She then decides to try it as a general practice, not just something for sociology class.

Lesson #5. Norms are not absolute. No behavior is always and essentially a breach of the norms. Harold Garfinkle, who invented the breaching experiment, found that his students, no matter what the behavior, could come up with some story or invent some context that “normalized it.”

For the breaching exercises, the simplest, all-purpose normalization is “This is an experiment.” As one of my professors once put it: If you go up to someone and say, “Lie down,” they’ll look at you funny and probably demand an explanation, and if they don’t get one, they might refuse. But if you say, “This is an experiment. Lie down,” down they go.            

All this is about social control – how a society gets people to do what they’re supposed to do. Even these mild reactions to norm-breaking are forms of social control. The raised eyebrow, the questioning look, or an actual question (“Why are you wearing that?”) tip the person off that they are breaking a norm. These are sanctions – negative sanctions. If that’s all we say about social control, we’re missing at least half of the story – positive sanctions as a form of social control. These may be even less noticeable than negative sanctions, but they may also be more important, as I try to show in the next post.

Gimme a Breach

November 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

For the unit on norms, some sociology teachers have their students do “breaching” experiments – those exercises where you break some norm, observe how people react, and write up your results. (Nowadays, you add a video.) The norms broken vary widely. Stand too close to strangers, face the wrong way in an elevator, wear the wrong clothes (street clothes in the gym). In this one a girl goes up to random boys and kisses them. (So much for her career in the Senate.)

Some are more elaborate.  A guy wears football pads to the super market and do push-ups in the middle of the canned vegetable aisle. A student dresses up in a mascot costume and dances through the quad. Some of these scenarios get into Candid Camera territory, like this girl who, wearing her bathrobe and carrying a basket of laundry, went to the washing machine section in the appliance store.



It’s all good  fun, but I’m not a big fan. I don’t ask students to breach. My impression is that the intended lessons are fairly obvious
  • All situations are governed by norms. In any situation you can imagine, there’s a way to do something that breaks a norm.
  • The variety of reactions is narrow and predictable. Some people ignore, some look quizzically, some guess correctly that it’s some kind of stunt, a few ask the norm-breaker what she’s doing.
The trouble with these breaching exercises is that the assignment and camera are pointed at the people who are reacting. If you want more interesting findings, focus instead on the reactions of the person doing the breaching.

Lesson #1: Norms are powerful – a lot more powerful than you think.

Few people realize how hard it is to deliberately break a norm. It’s so hard that ome students cheat on the assignment. They turn in a paper describing their breach and the reactions, but it’s fiction; they never really did the experiment. It was lack of lack of time or imagination that prevented them. It was lack of courage.

When Stanley Milgram assigned his seminar to ask strangers on the New York City subway for their seats, he was disappointed at how few students completed the task. Wen they explained how nerve-wracking it was, Milgram decided to show them. He, along with clipboard-bearing student who would do the observing, went down into the subway, and got on the train. And Milgram couldn’t do it. He couldn’t ask a stranger for their seat. The student had to give him a pep talk, boost his courage. Meanwhile, the train had gone several stops. Finally, Milgram picked out the most unthreatening looking person in the subway car and approached. What he felt was akin to panic – the sudden warmth at the neck and head, the sweat, the tightening of the throat. Finally, he mumbled, “ExcusemecanIhaveyourseat?” “What?” said the woman. “Excuse me, but could I have your seat?”

The woman got up. But it’s not her reaction that’s interesting or unexpected; it’s Milgram’s. And those of his students. As one man said later, “I was afraid I was going to throw up.” None of them foresaw how difficult it would be.*

(For more lessons drawn from breaching experiments, see the next post.)


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* Milgram, of all people, should have foreseen the power everyday norms. Only a few years earlier, he had shown that people would choose to electrocute a stranger rather than break the norm, tell the man in the lab coat he was wrong, and ruin one trial of the experiment.                                            

Still Funny After All These Years. . . and News Stories?

November 11, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s the celebrities and politicians that we hear about – all these stories of men behaving badly, sometimes very badly. More troubling is that far too many non-celebrities – men without the power of a studio head or highly successful comedian or office holder – do the same things. The very powerful can make or break careers, lives. Director James Toback would tell an aspiring actress who he had more or less forced to undress that he had mob connections and that if she reported the incident, he would have her killed. It sounds like yet another male fantasy, but how could she be sure it wasn’t true?
                               
Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, as we well know, often don’t report the offense. Surveys provide some alternative data, but those surveys too may be inaccurate. What about less dramatic sexual piggishness? It’s less serious, but probably far more common. Here’s a tweet I saw today (HT: Gwen Sharp).



Asking for retweets can’t even be called methodology. Still, nearly 200,000 in two days is a lot. I was reminded of this Seinfeld episode from 1994 and wondered if, in the current climate, it’s still funny.


I do think it’s still funny. The writer of this episode (“The Stand In”) was Larry David, though Carol Leifer is listed as story consultant. I just wonder whose idea it was. Who would know that this is the sort of thing that can easily happen, and often does happen, on a date.*
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* Some incidents of exposure are not sexual; they are purely for the purpose of aggression and intimidation. When Janis Hirsch, a TV comedy writer, was working on Garry Shandling’s show, the other writers, all male, began to exclude her, possibly because her work was better than theirs.

The guys started excluding me from meetings: Oh, we couldnt find you”...at my desk. Then they started excluding me from the table, instead assigning me “the slit scenes” to write. Even though these scenes were the ones that featured the only female cast member, it didnt occur to me exactly what slit they were referring to until one day in the ladies room.

One day, I was sitting in Garrys office across the desk from him. A few of the writers and one of the actors were in the room, too. I felt a tap on my shoulder, I turned, and there was that actors flaccid penis draped on it like a pirates dead parrot. Riotous laughter ensued from all but one of us. [The full story is in The Hollywood Reporter ]

This happened in 1986. The term microaggression had not yet become current. Too bad. She would have had a great comeback line.

Another Round of Cosmopolitans

November 11, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between good journalism and sociology. One obvious difference is in the data. Social science data has to be thorough and sysematic. A journalist can merely talk to a cab driver or report on how a friend reacted to a sandwich menu that offered a “Padrino” or “soppresssata.”

If you’re a journalist, you also don’t have to worry much about antecedents. You can put your ideas on display as something totally new, like fidget spinners. But if you want to pass as a scholar, you have to do your homework.

British journalist David Goodhart in his recent book on populism and politics in the UK has created two types he calls Somewheres and Anywheres to explain what’s happening. David Brooks yesterday borrowed the terms and applied them to US politics.

Somewheres are rooted in their towns and have “ascribed” identities — Virginia farmer, West Virginia coal miner, Pennsylvania steelworker. Anywheres are at home in the global economy. They derive their identity from portable traits, like education or job skills, and are more likely to move to areas of opportunity.

Somewheres value staying put; they feel uncomfortable with many aspects of cultural and economic change, like mass immigration. Anywheres make educational attainment the gold standard of status and are cheerleaders for restless change.


Pardon me, but this sounds awfully similar to a typology offered sixty years ago by sociologist Alvin Gouldner in his Administrative Sciecne Quarterly article. “Cosmopolitans and Locals.” The terms give a fairly good picture of these two types, the one more mobile and oriented towards a profession, the other rooted to a place or a company. Here’s a quick version:


    Locals:
        high on loyalty to the employing organization,
        low on commitment to specialized role skills
        likely to use an inner reference group orientation.

     Cosmopolitans:
        low on loyalty to the employing organization
        high on commitment to specialized role skills
        likely to use an outer reference group orientation

I haven’t read Goodhart’s book; maybe he does credit Gouldner. In a Financial Times article (here) he describes himself as a “post-liberal,” and perhaps he avoids cosmopolitan because he is familiar with the alt-right and their use of cosmopolitan as a pejorative synonym for Jew. (See my earlier post on this.)

I had the impression that David Brooks took some sociology courses at Chicago, but I guess cosmopolitans and locals never came up.

The Fault in Our Polls

November 8, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A year ago, the polls predicted that Hillary would win. They were wrong. They also predicted that she would get about 3 percentage points more votes than Trump. They were right.

This year, the polls – nearly all of them – predicted that in gobernatorial election in Virginia, Ralph Northam would beat Ed Gillespie. They were right. They also predicted, on average, that the winning margin would be 3.3%. They were wrong. Northam won by more than 8 points.

RealClearPolitics published this table of poll results. (The last two rows are my own addition, based on stories at The Hill.)Bad calls – mostly results falling outside a poll’s margin of error – are in red.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In general, the polls
  • called the winner (only three got it wrong)
  • nailed the Gillespie vote
  • underestimated the Northam vote
  • underestimated the winning margin
Some polls came closer than others. Quinnipiac had the margin right but lowballed the percents for both candidates, especially Gillespie. Rasmussen’s usual rightward bias led them to miss what most got right – the winner. Of the major polls, the farthest off was New York Times / Siena, though it showed no liberal bias in its errors. It underestimated the Republican vote by 5 points, the Democratic vote by 10 points.

I have no good explanation for these results. I leave that to people who know something about polling and voting.

Addicted

November 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Addiction is not irrational. It’s just destructive. It has its own logic and reasoning.  For the heroin addict, another shot of smack really will relieve the misery of withdrawal. . . till the next time.

The compulsive gamblers I studied long ago often said that their gambling debts had become so large that the only solution was to gamble even more. Otherwise, relying on their ordinary income, they would never get out of the hole. But then gambling led to more losses and even larger debt, whose solution in turn was still more gambling.

Addiction is trying to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem in the first place. It’s basically the NRA/John Lott position on guns.

Guns in the Israeli Playbook

November 6, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


After mass shootings that make the national news, The Onion regularly reposts this headline.


As if to prove The Onion right, Fox came in on cue with an article by John Lott.


Lott, whose research and ethics have come in for much criticism, actually makes a valid point here. Mental health screening can never find in advance the extremely rare individual who will commit a mass murder.

But Lott avoids discussing the one obvious liberal proposal – ban assault weapons. Devin Kelly used an assault rifle at the Sutherland Springs church, leaving 26 people dead, 20 others wounded. Apparently, just about anyone can buy this kind of deadly weaponry in Texas and in many other states. Yes, it’s possible to kill a couple dozen people with only a handgun (also easily available in Texas and elsewhere) or rifle. But by letting killers buy an assault rifle we make their job so much easier.

Lott also repeats the gunslinger line that the only way to stop mass killings is to have more people carry guns. That “good guy with a gun” was not ignored by the liberal media. NYT, WaPo, NPR, CNN – they all mentioned him and said that it's possible that his bullets may have hit the mass shooter. They also reported, however, that the good guy with his gun arrived on the scene after the killer had left the church and was heading to his car.

Lott continues:

If the media and politicians want to do something effective, they could take a page out of Israel’s playbook. When there is a surge in terrorist attacks , Israeli police call on permitted civilians to make sure that they have their guns with them at all times.

Lott picked the wrong country to use as an example. Take another look at that phrase “permitted civilians.” If you had an image of Israel as a Middle East Jewish version of Texas, where anyone can walk into Guns Galore and walk out armed to the teeth, think again. It’s hard, really hard, to get a gun permit in Israel.

Only a small group of people are eligible for firearms licenses: certain retired military personnel, police officers or prison guards; residents of frontier towns (in the West Bank and the Golan Heights) or those who often work in such towns; and licensed hunters and animal-control officers. Firearm license applicants must . . . establish a genuine reason for possessing a firearm (such as self-defense, hunting, or sport), and pass a weapons-training course. Around 40% of applications for firearms permits are rejected. [Wikipedia. Emphasis added.]


Less than 3% of the population has that license, which must be renewed every three years. It’s almost impossible to own more than one gun. Guns in the home must be kept unloaded. And civilians are not allowed to buy assault weapons.

The Israeli playbook sounds like a very good idea. If we had taken the whole book, not just a page, a Devin Kelly or Stephen Paddock would probably not have qualified for a gun permit. And if he had been able to get a permit, he would have had only one gun. And many more Americans would still be alive.

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* The cat-ate-my-homework dodge when other scholars asked to see his data. The sock puppet he created to lavish praise at Amazon on his book and his teaching. More here. He’s also very litigious, threatening his critics with lawsuits. I think he even threatened me once; no target is too small. He may do so again.
 

Witches, Bitches, Sluts

October 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Speaking of Halloween costumes for women (as I was a few days ago – here), consider this observation and fill in the blanks, all with the same word. Here’s a hint: it has something to do with Halloween costumes for women.

criteria for applying the ___________ label were not widely shared. There appeared to be no group of women consistently identified as ___________ s. . . . . Everyone succeeded at avoiding stable classification. Yet the  stigma still felt very real. Women were convinced that actual ___________ s existed and organized their behaviors to avoid this label.

The word could have been witch, but the setting is not the 17th century Salem. It’s a Midwest university dormitory (one known as a “party dorm”) in the early 21st century. The word is slut.

There are a few ways that sluts are like witches. The Halloween connection might be a clue. Halloween is a holiday of release, a time when we can play at roles that are usually forbidden and act out desires that we must usually keep hidden under the cloak of propriety. The usually suppressed themes that the witch and the slut are expressing are things that make men fearful or uncomfortable. The core of the witch is her power, a commodity rarely held by women. It’s the power to do ill – putting curses on people, transforming them into lowly animals – but hey, power is power. What the slut is enacting is undisguised lust. The “nice girl” accommodates men’s demands but makes no demands of her own save those that men feel comfortable with. The woman who openly demands her own sexual fulfillment, may be tempting to men, yet also dangerous.

The passage about sluts is not about men and their reactions to women. It’s about women and their use of the term slut. It’s from the 2014 article “Good Girls” by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. They and their research team lived in the dorm as ethnographers, listening to the girls. And they often heard the word slut. But that usage was unusual in two ways. First, sluts, like witches, are not real. Instead the term is a Weberian ideal type, used for marking a moral boundary. Second, sluttiness is not primarily about sex. – what a girl did in private and who she did it with. Instead, what made for sluttiness was “public gender performance.”

 The categories on either side of that boundary were different depending on class and status of the girls. For working-class girls, sluts were “bitchy” in contrast to “nice” girls like themselves. For the upper-middle class girls, sluts were “trashy” while they themselves were “classy.”

It’s this latter distinction that is the basis for all those “sexy” (i.e., slutty) Halloween costumes you may see tonight. You won’t see working-class girls taking advantage of this one day to dress up as upper-middle-class bitchy sorority sluts.  But as one the higher status students told the researchers,

[Halloween is] the night that girls can dress skanky. Me and my friends do it. [And] in the summer, I’m not gonna lie, I wear itty bitty skirts. . . . Then there are the sluts that just dress slutty, and sure they could be actual sluts. I don’t get girls that go to fraternity parties in the dead of winter wearing skirts that you can see their asses in.


The quote illustrates both of Armstrong and Hamilton’s obserations: first, that overt sexiness is something that girls must keep in check unless they have some excuse like Halloween; and second, that “actual sluts,” like actual witches, may be something nobody has actually seen.

Debbie Does Durkheim

October 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember “profiling” in the 1990s – “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and then the TV series “Profiler” (1996 - 2000). It seemed like half the students in my crim courses were there because they wanted be profilers,* untangling the twisted psyches of serial killers, figuring out where they would strike next, and nabbing them just before they killed again. What a disappointment my course must have been.   

They’re baaack. Not my students. Profilers on TV. The show is “Mindhunters.” It’s on Netflix, it’s set in the late 1970s, and it has some big names attached – David Fincher and Charlize Theron are producers, and Fincher directed some of the episodes. And another big name: Emile Durkheim.

In the first episode, the central character Holden Ford, in a loud and crowded bar (there’s a rock band playing), finds himself standing next to Debbie Mitford, an attractive young woman. They step outside to continue their conversation. That’s when she utters the kind of pick-up line that’s become such a tired cliche these days.

(Click on an image for a larger view)

Debbie is a graduate student in sociology. He’s a hostage negotiator for the FBI, but his boss has just assigned him to the classroom – to teach agents hostage negotiation. He confesses his ignorance about Durkheim, but the flirtation continues.


This struck me as not quite right. Alas, I was not called in as a script doctor on this show. I know something about theories of deviance. On the other hand, I know little about bar conversations. Anyway, once Debbie has lured him this far, she adds, with a twinkle in her eye,


I haven’t seen the rest of the series, but it looks like the Debbie-Holden thing will have a life beyond this one meeting in a bar. The relationship will probably hinge on some underlying and never-resolved sexual tension  – a flat, humorless version of  Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis in the first seasons of “Moonlighting.” Just a guess.

The sociology lesson ends with this:


And my point is that the ideas she attributes to Durkheim might be ideas you could derive from Durkheim. But they are not what he actually said. The key passage is the one in The Rules of Sociological Method (here), where Durkheim says that even in a society of saints there will be crime. It won’t be the crime of the unsaintly world. But the norms for acceptable behavior will be raised so high, that actions that are unremarkable in our world will be treated as criminal.

Over a half-century later, this passage became the cornerstone of labeling theory – the recognition that deviance is a not a thing but a process. It is the interaction between those who make and enforce the rules or norms and those who break them. But Durkheim himself never used the word labeling, nor did he take the more conflict-based view that criminality is a response to “something wrong” in the society.

Sociological script consultants – never around when you need one.

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* My inner dyslexic always wants to read “profilers” as “prolifers” – not exactly the same thing, though perhaps not entirely different. 

HT: Max for alerting me to this scene.

Halloween – When It’s Not About Sexiness

Oct 26, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Halloween’s just a few days away, and I still haven’t come up with a costume. I could do the same thing as the last few years and again opt for Slutty Max Weber. But it’s getting old.

OK, that was a joke. But for women, especially young women, deciding on a costume is no joke. A USA Today article on the topic quotes sociologist Lisa Wade*: “All of our choices are bad.”

The choices are bad because it’s about sex. Or rather, sexiness. As Alia Dastigir, author of the USA Today piece, puts it,“Dress sexy on Halloween and risk being judged or harassed, or forgo the fishnets and risk being ridiculed or ignored.” Note the passive voice. Judged, harassed, ridiculed, or ignored but by who? By men of course.

Because men have the power in these situations (and in most), women orient themselves to men’s ideas, hence the two unsatisfactory alternatives. The hegemony of men’s way of looking at things is especially acute in settings built on the expectation of male-female pairing. That setting, typically, is a party – a Halloween party.  And the expectations or hopes can range from “meeting someone” to all the different levels of  “hooking up”  or even to something like romance.

In places were the underlying idea of Halloween is not about male-female relations, women turn out in a variety of costumes, and the dimension they are judged on – by others and by themselves – is not sexiness. When my son was in college, his group went as Clue. Nobody, even Miss Scarlet, was trying for sexy. (My son, for his part, went to Goodwill and managed to find an actual green suit.)

In the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, participants seem to be striving for not for sexiness but for creativity and humor, often as a group effort.  The Thriller group is a great example, though its numbers make it a bit of an outlier – 200 or so ghouls and zombies with a handful of Michael Jacksons.



The Village Parade is an exception. Many paraders, perhaps most, make their own costumes. In the rest of America, we buy our costumes, and the costume companies cannot very well sell creativity. So most of what they sell for women is sexiness.

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* Lisa was the founding editor (along with Gwen Sharp) of Sociological Images, which for a while was by far the most visited sociology blog on the Internet. Maybe it still is.

Risk and Blame Again – Ms Bialik, Meet Mr. Trump

October 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Mayim Bialik discovered from the reaction to her op-ed, it’s hard for most of us to untangle the strands of risk and blame. Bialik explained why her appearance and demeanor put her at less risk of sexual harassment in Hollywood. People accused her of blaming the victims of sexual harassment and assault. (See my previous post here.)

A few days later, Bialik had unexpected company in the same boat – Donald Trump. The widow of a soldier killed in Niger reported that Trump, in phoning her to offer condolences, said, “He knew what he signed up for.”

Trump’s critics inferred that he was in effect blaming the victim for taking the risk. Not just any victim and any risk, but a victim whose risk was to defend our country (assuming that’s what our soldiers are doing in Niger). Nobody said that Trump was factually incorrect, but even though what he said was a change from his usual tenuous relation to the truth, it was still unwelcome. His remark about risk wasn’t inaccurate; it was “insensitive.” It demonstrated his insensitivity, especially to people of color (so what else is new?)

Unlike Bialik, who basically recanted, Trump, as usual, attacked. He said that the widow and her Congressional representative Frederica Wilson, who had also heard the phone call were lying about what he had said. They weren’t. He made another false accusation against Ms Wilson. Then he tried another of his favorite strategies, attacking Obama. Obama and other previous presidents, said Trump, had never called the families of fallen soldiers. They had.

Trump could have avoided this mess if he had issued a statement to the effect that pointing out risk is not the same as blaming. “I meant to thank her and her husband for the great risks he took – the risk that all our soldiers take – in defending us.” Instead, he went on the attack, coming out with at least three falsehoods, mostly false accusations against African American women. So it probably won’t cost him any points in the approval polls. 

Risk and Blame

October 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tweeters were throwing shade at Mayim Bialik this week for her op-ed in the New York Times. In that article, Bialik said that in her Hollywood career she had never encountered the kinds of sexual predation and harassment that Harvey Weinstein’s victims are reporting. The reason, she said, was that she was not as physically attractive.

I have also experienced the upside of not being a “perfect ten.” As a proud feminist with little desire to diet, get plastic surgery or hire a personal trainer, I have almost no personal experience with men asking me to meetings in their hotel rooms. Those of us in Hollywood who don’t represent an impossible standard of beauty have the “luxury” of being overlooked and, in many cases, ignored by men in power unless we can make them money.

The charge leveled against Bialik for this was victim-blaming. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Bialik also had many supporters who said that her accusers had misread the Times column. But she quickly came around and issued a statement (on Twitter I think) that sounded as though she had cribbed it directly from Eve Ewing (Wikipedia Brown)..

God forbid I would blame a woman for her assault based on her clothing or behavior. . . .How you dress and how you behave has nothing to do with being assaulted. Assault and rape are acts of power, they’re not acts of sexual desire. There is no way to avoid being the victim of assault by what you wear or the way you behave.

The amazing thing about the dispute is how civil it was. Yes some comments were foolish or fallacious. But there was little of the snark ranging from snide to vicious that plagues so many Internet conflicts. (I wrote a blogpost a while ago called  “The Tragedy of the Comments.” The title said it all.) And nobody, as far as I know, mentioned Hitler. Nor has Bialik (again AFAIK) gotten any death threats. Maybe that’s because the participants were mostly women. But maybe it’s also because most of the participants on both sides share the same politics and the same general outlook.

The apparent conflict arises because they cannot separate the empirical from the moral. What can a woman do to change her risk of victimization? That is an empirical question. Who is to blame for sexual harassment and assault? That is a moral question.

Bialik’s critics seem to think that you shouldn’t even ask the empirical risk question, for to do so leads to the wrong answer on the moral blame question. They also think that they already know the answer to the empirical question. As the chastened Bialik says, echoing the views of her critics, “How you dress and how you behave has nothing to do with being assaulted. . .  There is no way to avoid being the victim of assault by what you wear or the way you behave.” This is just a few days after she said that she avoided sexual harassment and worse by the Harvey Weinsteins of Hollywood precisely by how she looked and behaved. 

She was right the first time. It seems obvious that when male predators have a choice – and men in positions of power, men like Weinstein, Trump, Ailes, et al., do have a choice – they choose victims who are physically attractive. In the wider world outside the corridors and hotel rooms of power, not all women are equally likely to be victimized. Data from the national victimization survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that age, marital status, and income make a difference.



Bialik’s statement can be true only if when she says “there is no way to avoid being the victim,” she means one hundred percent certainty. Yes, some women will be victimized regardless of appearance and behavior. As the BJS survey shows, even among women 65 and older, 2 in every 10,000 reported being victims of rape or sexual assault.* But younger women face a far higher risk of victimization. Does that mean we blame rape victims for being young? Or poor? (Unfortunately, some people do blame them for being unmarried.**)

Or perhaps Bialik means that once a predator has decided to victimize a woman, his power (physical, economic, social) may make it nearly impossible for her to avoid the assault.

In an ideal world, a woman’s appearance and behavior would make no difference in her risk of being a victim of sexual assault. In an ideal world there would be no sexual assault. The way that both Bialik and her critics would like to move towards that ideal is by men changing their behavior. How that is to be accomplished is huge empirical question. The good news is that the BJS survey also shows that rates of rape and sexual assault have decreased greatly over the past quarter century.

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* This estimate is based on a very small number of cases, ten at the most. But while the estimate may be unreliable, the point is that at least some older women were victims.

** See this post from 2014 on the idea that part of the marriage contract is the protection of the woman from sexual predation. The post ends with a quote from Philip Slater: “Before long, of course, every protection contract becomes a protection racket: ‘Give me what I want and I will protect you against me.’”